While waiting to board a recent flight to LA, I heard a man tell his companion that “ninety-eight percent of success is just showing up.”
Eighty percent, I thought. The quote is “eighty percent of success is just showing up.”
How did I know my fellow passenger had the math wrong? * Because Woody Allen’s quote about “just showing up” has been a lodestar for my writing practice.
Not that I adhere to advice from Mr. Allen generally, but this quote has proved true over and over in my writing life. I’ve learned that I don’t have to be the best writer or even the first person to tackle a subject, I just need to show up and things will likely work out.
This plays out from the moment I put words on a blank page. I may have only a vague idea for a newspaper column or a blog post. But if I show up to my desk and begin writing, I find my way to my meaning and eventually I know what I want to say.
If I hope to create a fictionalized world and populate it with characters, the same holds true. I show up with a bare outline of that world and stick figure characters to move around within its borders. By the time my writing session is done, that make-believe world has become more vibrant and the characters multi-dimensional. The work may not be 100% complete, but it’s well on its way.
I’ve found this also applies to pitching my work. If I attend a writing conference and sign up to meet with agents and editors, I invariably have greater success with requested pages than if I I’m just one of many strangers vying for their attention via email.
Knowing that I merely need to show up releases the pressure to show up for my writing life fully formed. I can just be me—a work-in-progress, ready to learn, keen to receive inspiration but not PERFECT. Which brings me to another favorite quote – “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” This aphorism doesn’t have a direct attribution, but several other writers have expressed a similar sentiment. Voltaire said that “the best is the enemy of the good;” Shakespeare advised that “striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”
Steve Jobs said as much when he insisted that “Real artists ship.” This means that you could tinker with something forever, but a real artist also finishes his or her work and gets it out into the world.
Now for a historical novelist, these three simple words could be seen as “fighting” words. After all, it can take years to research historical details, develop a compelling story and flesh out interesting characters. But it’s also a good kick in the pants to press through and share your work with the world.
That said, the poet Mary Oliver reassures writers that “Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.”
It’s a fine balance, this writing gig. To ship, one shouldn’t tinker forever. But to avoid the debilitating “voice of the oppressor,” as Anne Lamott refers to perfectionism, we must give ourselves the appropriate time and space to complete our work. How long will that be?
We’ll never find out unless we “show up” for our writing. I guess that stranger in the airport may have had the numbers right after all. Writing success is mostly—maybe even ninety-eight percent—about showing up.
*Perhaps the man in the airport was conflating a quote from Einstein who said that “Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work.”
Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.